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Italian court begins Costa Concordia hearings

The captain of the Costa Concordia has faced survivors of the cruise ship disaster during a pre-trial hearing. Francesco Schettino may be charged in relation to the deaths of dozens of passengers and crew.

Hundreds of people gathered in Grosseto, Italy on Monday to attend a pre-trial hearing concerning the Costa Concordia disaster, which claimed the lives of 32 people when the cruise ship ran aground and capsized on January 13.

Lawyers and the families of victims were present as the court prepared to discuss the contents of a 270-page expert report based on audio evidence from the ship's "black box" recorder.

The proceedings, which will be conducted over several days and behind closed doors, took place in the town's main theater to accommodate the large number of people in attendance. The area around the theater was closed off to pedestrians and cars, while Schettino was escorted in through a side entrance to avoid journalists.

Captain faces ridicule

The Costa Concordia, a 114,500 ton luxury cruise ship, capsized and sank when it struck a rock off the Tuscan island of Giglio while performing a "salute" maneuver.

Schattino been ridiculed by the public for leaving the ship before more than 4,200 passengers and crew members were evacuated. He is facing charges of manslaughter, shipwreck, abandoning ship and failure to adequately inform maritime authorities.

The captain did not speak during Monday's hearing, but his lawyers said that he has accepted blame and apologized for the event.

"It is in [Schettino's] interest that the truth comes out and it is a question of respect, not just for his rights but also the rights of the survivors," his lawyer, Francesco Pepe, told reporters outside the theater.

Company also to blame

The expert report, released last month, also placed blame with the cruise ship company Costa Cruises, saying that lives could have been saved if Fleet Crisis Coordinator Roberto Ferrarini had ordered the captain to immediately evacuate the ship after Schettino called him.

Eight other officers and executives of the company are being investigated for their roles in the disaster.

"It is clear that Schettino is at fault and has made some errors," Ernesto Carusotti, one of the survivors, told reporters outside the theater. "But there are other things behind this behavior, other faults that someone will have to pay for. The black box demonstrated that some things did not work."

"The reason these people died is not because of Captain Schettino, the reason these people died is because of the corporation, the negligence of their practices and safety procedures," said Peter Ronai, a lawyer for the victims' families. "There was no reason for anyone to die."

The captain has announced that he is suing Costa Cruises for unfair dismissal following the incident.

dr/ccp (AFP, Reuters, dpa)